Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Guest Review: Wilson

Summary: One hundred years after his inauguration, Woodrow Wilson still stands as one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century, and one of the most enigmatic. And now, after more than a decade of research and writing, Pulitzer Prize-winning author A. Scott Berg has completed Wilson--the most personal and penetrating biography ever written about the 28th President. 

In addition to the hundreds of thousands of documents in the Wilson Archives, Berg was the first biographer to gain access to two recently-discovered caches of papers belonging to those close to Wilson. From this material, Berg was able to add countless details--even several unknown events--that fill in missing pieces of Wilson s character and cast new light on his entire life. 

From the scholar-President who ushered the country through its first great world war to the man of intense passion and turbulence , from the idealist determined to make the world safe for democracy to the stroke-crippled leader whose incapacity and the subterfuges around it were among the century s greatest secrets, the result is an intimate portrait written with a particularly contemporary point of view a book at once magisterial and deeply emotional about the whole of Wilson s life, accomplishments, and failings. This is not just Wilson the icon but Wilson the man. -- Putnam

When the package containing WILSON by A. Scott Berg arrived on my front porch, I knew it was a big book -- I swear it weighed at least five pounds! Thankfully, I could pass it along to my dad who isn't as intimidated by big books as I am! Here are his thoughts on this very long book:

When I was given the opportunity to review WILSON I was excited to learn about a period of history of which I knew very little. The enthusiasm was a little dampened when the uncorrected copy I received totaled 800 pages. However, the time I spent reading WILSON was well worth it.

Wilson was born in 1856 in Virginia and lived in the south during his youth. He was greatly influenced by the Civil War and the fervent Presbyterian faith that his family practiced. Wilson was a good scholar and an excellent orator which led to a career in education and ultimately to the president of Princeton University. Under Wilson’s leadership, Princeton became a national model for higher education. Wilson’s traits of holding grudges and being inflexible to compromise first became apparent during his Princeton years and would later lead to some difficult times in his presidency.

Wilson began his political career by being elected governor of New Jersey in 1910. His ability to resist the pressures of the New Jersey political machine and enact some very progressive reforms got the attention of the national Democratic Party. In 1912 Wilson was elected the 28th president of the United States defeating Republican William Howard Taft and Bull Moose candidate Teddy Roosevelt. Wilson had some great accomplishments during his two-term presidency. For example he led our nation through World War I and saw it become a world superpower; was the first president to travel to Europe; promoted world peace through his contributions to the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I and the formation of the League of Nations; created the United States Central banking system and the federal reserve; signed into the law the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote and appointed the first Jewish judge to the Supreme Court. Whether or not you consider this a positive or negative, J Edgar Hoover was brought into the government during the Wilson administration.

Author A. Scott Berg shares some interesting facts about Wilson. During the worst of times as president, Wilson found time to play golf and go for lengthy rides around Washington. He actually played more golf than any other president. Wilson wooed his second wife with constant love letters that he found time to write and rewrite during some of the critical times of his presidency. He was a racist and considered the black race inferior to whites and did very little to improve their status, never commenting on the lynchings and beatings that took place during his time in office. He permitted his postmaster general to segregate the government department with the largest black employment and he supported the policy of not permitting black soldiers to fight alongside white soldiers during the War. Although no scandals appeared to touch Woodrow Wilson during his two terms, enemies brought up his constant correspondence with a Mrs. Peck while still married to his first wife. Wilson also appeared to be ill quite often and actually suffered a severe stroke while campaigning to gather public support for the acceptance of his League of Nations. Wilson spent a six month period of his term bed-ridden and paralyzed on his left side. This was kept from the public and his wife was more or less running the executive branch of the government most of his last year in office. Wilson actually didn’t shave during this period, an indication of his mental and physical state. At the end of his second term the U.S. economy was suffering from high prices, unemployment, strikes and racial riots. Wilson left office a broken man and died three years after leaving office at the age of 67.

The two most interesting sections of the book to me were the chapter on the U.S. entry into World War I and the chapter on the treaty ending the War. Wilson was forced into the war after running for his second term with the campaign slogan “He kept us out of the war”. Berg does a very good job of describing the War’s effect on the United States. In 1919 Wilson spent six months (except for one brief trip back to the U.S.) in Europe helping to define the terms of the peace agreement and pushing his vision of the League of Nations only to come home and have the U.S. Senate led by Henry Cabot Lodge reject the United States entry into the League. Wilson’s unwillingness to compromise resulted in his most significant defeat as president.

Author A. Scott Berg spent 13 years researching and writing WILSON and has included an incredible amount of detail in his book. Not having read any other biographies about Wilson it’s hard for me to judge his treatment of Wilson, but I do feel he treated Wilson very favorably. For example he spends very little time discussing those who opposed Wilson except for Teddy Roosevelt’s and Henry Cabot Lodge’s objections to Wilson on the war and the peace treaty. He quickly dismisses Wilson’s possible affair with Mrs. Peck suggesting his religious background would not allow such a thing. I also felt that he didn’t criticize Wilson sufficiently for his stand on race. Although Wilson’s views were probably the “norm” of the day, more should have been expected from a man with his vision and independent thinking. Berg also gave him a free pass on his foray into Mexico. In an unusual approach, Berg titled each chapter with a biblical term and a reference to a biblical quote. For example the first chapter is titled Ascension with a quote from Mark and the second chapter is called Providence with a quote from Romans. I don’t understand what the author was trying to achieve but it does give a religious overtone to the book.

I recommend WILSON to anyone who enjoys U.S. history.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this book and to Booking Pap Pap for his thorough review.


bermudaonion said...

That sounds fascinating but an 800 page book is probably too much for me. I never knew he was so ill while he was in office.

steve said...

Small note: that should be 1910 and 1912 for the elections.

Beth F said...

I love biography! But I wonder if this is just a bit too long for me.

Unknown said...

I read this on audio book and it was still hefty - I think it was 30 cds! Very good bio though.